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A CurtainUp Review
Once On This Island

Ti Moune, if we knew why the gods did the things they do, we would be gods ourselves. — Mama
Kathy Kilgore (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Within the large and open performance space of the Circle in the Square are what appears to be the survivors and the remnants of a community on a storm-ravaged beach on a Caribbean island. Clothing has been hung out to dry on long lines that are strung out and across the walls of the theater. Below the sandy beachhead is strewn with debris as the locals begin the arduous task of making their lives livable among decimated shanties following the recent devastation. A goat is captured with a leash, a chicken has a refuge in a cage and a fisherman with a net stands ankle-deep and hopeful in a pond. The sight is both stunning and chilling as created by designer Dane Laffrey and the show’s director Michael Arden (Spring Awaking revival)

It is an impressive sight to serve for the beginning of Once On This Island, and it creates a bit of timely realism for the 1990 musical by the composing team of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) that is all about survival, magic and believing.

This team has compiled a significant and admired canon of musical theater compositions since they hit the big time on Broadway more than twenty-five years ago with Once On This Island. While some of their subsequent collaborations (Ragtime , Anastasia and Seusical) have earned them accolades and awards and maintained relatively high profiles over the years, Once On This Island has been a recurring favorite at regional theaters.

Based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, this newly imagined and exuberantly performed revival is set on an island in the French Antilles. It tells a bittersweet, semi-tragic love story that involves bigotry and the racial divide between the dark skinned natives and the light-skinned mulatto land owners.

Within that context of reality, there is a presiding presence of enchantment. It is the realization of that enchantment that prompts the musical's plot. Fantasy and reality are generally an uneasy mix but they are made compatible in what is most definitely a fable. Just be prepared to suspend and share the same kind of uncompromised belief you bring to Peter Pan

Director Arden, choreographer Camille A. Brown and the design team have made sure we remain captivated by their ever changing vision of the island, the sheer magic of the stagecraft they deploy — along with the invigorating pulse of the score's calypso beat that is totally in synch with that tradition.

The new orchestrations by Annmarie Milazzo & Michael Starobin, as played by musicians perched on high are worthy of praise, not the least for not assaulting our senses. This, as the entrancing music embraces the uncomplicated story of a poor native orphan girl Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore making her Broadway debut), who becomes hopelessly infatuated with the unattainable Daniel (Isaac Powell, another terrific Broadway debut) the aristocratic son a wealthy mulatto land owner.

This is a musical that asks us to succumb to the quaintness of the story without losing sight of its moral: that love never dies but is merely transformed by its power. The musical numbers (see song list below) are mostly distinguished by their tropical island-inspired flavors. . . which is enough. And they land appealingly, thanks to the strong performances by a notably personality-driven company.

It doesn't take long for the immediately endearing 18-year-old Kilgore to win our hearts as the love-intoxicated if also ill-fated Ti-Moune who is destined to become a folkloric legend among her people. Her sparkling singing voice is as winning as is her dancing, particularly when unleashed shoeless at a snobby aristocratic dinner party.

Kenita R. Miller and Philip Boykin are delightful as the caring and protective couple who have raised the orphaned Ti Moune rescued as an infant from the sea. Lea Salonga doesn't have much to do as Ti-Moune's personal guardian, the Goddess of Love Erzulie, but she meanders gracefully through the often misty proceedings in a flowing white gown and a glittering silver crown on her head. The beauty of her singing voice has not diminished since she played the title role in Miss Saigon in 1991 at the age of 18. She is but one of the many gods and goddesses who rule the islanders and manipulate their fates.

Much of musical's sung-through narrative thread is supplied by a bevy of storytellers. The colorful costumes designed by Clint Ramos earnestly reflect the rags, the riches as well as the many fantastical elements that co-exist on this island. They receive a little extra dazzle in the glow of the lighting designs by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer.

This musical may be small in its scope, but when compared to some, it achieves its own sense of grandness by being both magical and seductive— an unbeatable combination.

Musical Numbers
We Dance
One Small Girl
Waiting for Life
And the Gods Heard Her Prayer
Discovering Daniel
Forever Yours
The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes
Ti Moune
Mama Will Provide
Waiting for Life (Reprise)
Some Say
The Human Heart
Pray (Reprise)
Some Girls
The Ball
Ti Moune's Dance
Andrea Sequence
Promises/Forever Yours (Reprise)
Wedding Sequence
A Part of Us
Why We Tell the Story

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Once on This Island
Music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Michael Arden; assistant director, Nikki M. James
Choreographer: Camille A. Brown
Cast: Phillip Boykin (Tonton Julian), Merle Dandridge (Papa Ge), Quentin Earl Darrington (Agwe), Alysha Deslorieux (Andrea), David Jennings (Armand), Hailey Kilgore(Ti Moune), Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie), Alex Newell (Asaka), Isaac Powell (Daniel), Lea Salonga (Erzulie),Mia Williamson and Emerson Davis (Little Girl). The Storytellers: Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Cassondra James, Da
vid Jennings, Grasan Kingsberry, Tyler Hardwick, Loren Lott, T. Oliver Reid, Aurelia Williams
New arrangement with non-traditional nstruments by Michael Starobin
Set designer Dane Laffrey
Costume designer Clint Ramos
Lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Stage Manager:
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours includes 1 intermission
Circle in the Square Theatre W. 50th Street 212-239-6200
From 11/09/17; opening 12/03/17; closing 1/06/19
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at Nov. 29th press preview

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